Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists can go take a flying leap.
So, I’m getting around to this a bit later than I wanted (especially given that March Madness finished like two months ago) but the truth is I can only go as fast as the year’s film schedule allows me and I wanted to wait for both of these first films to come out on home video rather than relying on my memories of seeing them back in January. So, here we go, the first of the heats.
A quick reminder, the brackets as they currently stand.
Introducing the competitors. Weighing in at 113 minutes from Ryan Coogler we have the seventh film in the venerated Rocky franchise, the sequel/soft reboot Creed!
And weighing in at 167 minutes, we have the eighth film by legendary director, foot fetishist, and lover of the n-word Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight!
Okay, the honest truth about The Hateful Eight is that once you put aside all the Panavision 70mm film roadshow stuff that most of the marketing was based around, the film itself is fairly middle of the pack Tarantino. Top of the list I would put Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction and the bottom is firmly taken up by the overlong and honestly rather dull two parter Kill Bill. But truthfully, Tarantino is an accomplished enough filmmaker that middle of the pack for him is still pretty great by most other people’s standards.
I’ve enjoyed the turn he’s taken with his last couple of films, moving away from contemporary settings and into World War II and the Old West. The films are still undeniably him, but he’s forced to move out of his comfort zone of having every character spout off random pop culture trivia like a nerd who used to work in a video store and into the realms of… well, having every character say QT’s favourite word, regardless of situation and to varying levels of effect (and if you’re unfamiliar and unaware of what his favourite word is, here’s a clue: it starts with N and ends with igger).
But in spite of the rampant use of the n-word, The Hateful Eight is remarkably restrained for Tarantino. Blood doesn’t get truly spilled until somewhere around the 95 minute mark, right before there was a Morricone scored intermission in the roadshow version of the film (or so I am told, I didn’t get to see it for myself). Of course, in typical Tarantino fashion, when it rains it pours, and once the violent genie’s out of the gorey bottle, it’s pretty impossible to get him back in again, so after a lot of setup in which he somehow believably corrals a sadistic bounty hunter, a Union major turned sadistic bounty hunter, a renegade soldier turned Sheriff, a Mexican, a cowboy, an upbeat English hangman, a Confederate general, and a sadistic criminal into one bar in the middle of a snowstorm the whole thing ends in copious bloodshed that can at once be described as gratuitous and wholly satisfying, especially after an extended flashback sequence in which every character’s motives are revealed.
The whole thing is essentially Tarantino’s take on The Thing. Is it as good as John Carpenter’s horror classic? Not really, but that’s a pretty steep hill to climb, and I do have to give QT props for attempting it. He must have known it would invite comparison, and to have the sheer self-belief (or arrogance) required to stand in the face of that is an admirable trait. And The Hateful Eight does compare favourably. Not as good, but certainly not bad, even in a shadow that large.
What struck me upon my second viewing was that the film is never boring. Even when I already knew the twists going in and the various alliances the characters would make, even during that nearly hour and a half of setup, the whole thing is so engaging that I couldn’t help enjoying myself. The Hateful Eight is a damn good time.
Creed on the other hand, is a different beast. Where The Hateful Eight had to live up to Tarantino’s filmography, Creed was always going to be compared to the Rocky franchise and the various highs (Rocky, Rocky IV) and lows (Rocky V) within it. Yet somehow, even against all these odds, against a Best Picture winner, Creed manages to stand on its own two feet as a great movie in its own right.
It does it by not reinventing the formula, but rather refining it and improving it in various key places. The story of Adonis Creed an outclassed underdog training for a fight against a champion is not an unfamiliar one to fans of the franchise. But it improves by giving the people around Adonis something to do.
I don’t think it would be a controversial statement to say that Rocky’s love interest in the first movie Adrian was a bit of a non-entity. By comparison Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is a fully fleshed out character, a musician dealing with progressive hearing loss, and who isn’t afraid to call Adonis out on his shit, and walk away from him if need be. The villain of the piece too, a Liverpudlian boxer called Pretty Ricky Conlan who has a short temper and a knack for making bad decisions, who is facing up to having one last match before he goes to prison for seven years after being caught with a gun. And that’s not to forget Rocky himself, a performance Stallone manages to slip right back into with ease as Balboa deals with a cancer diagnosis.
Creed‘s big strength is that each of these characters feel like they could be the star of their own film. There could easily have been a Rocky VII about him dealing with cancer. Or a drama about the young rising star musician who is inevitably going to have her life overturned by losing the one sense she absolutely needs to carry on creating. Or the redemption arc for Conlan, who’s one bad decision has put his and his family’s future in question. They somehow feel like more than just a supporting cast for Adonis, they are each the protagonist of their own story.
But of course, this is ultimately a boxing film and that’s what it really has to come down to. And the fights themselves are so well shot. Coogler isn’t afraid to let the camera get up close and personal, leveraging whatever cinematic techniques he has at his disposal to frame each match in an interesting way, including the current favourite, the single take steadicam shot for the movie’s first big showdown. The up close nature of it all really brings home the idea that this is a film about the characters themselves rather than the spectacle. The fights feel more intimate than they ever have in the franchise, and it really works to Creed‘s benefit.
Judging these two against each other is hard. I didn’t expect it to get tough so soon, especially since this is literally the first round. But I have to give the edge to Creed. The Hateful Eight is a good Tarantino movie and a good time, but Creed not only revitalises the Rocky franchise, because of several key decisions by Ryan Coogler, it might just be the best film in the franchise so far.
The next one of these should be a lot sooner, since I have seen both High-Rise and Green Room. Again strong showings from both, but only one can emerge a winner.